Playwriting Like Child’s Play

“I regard writing as a gift, and there’s no knowing if I’m to be given more gifts”, says Jon Fosse. He’s about to turn 60, has a handsome novel about to launch, and has written a new play for the first time in years. And it’s like child’s play.

A long time ago, Jon Fosse was backstage at Det Norske Teatret. He and several other associated playwrights and authors were to do a reading. The occasion was a tribute of some kind on the main stage, Fosse doesn’t quite recall. This was back in the 80s, years before he started writing plays. Fosse was backstage, where all the technology, the lighting and other equipment is, in the company of other authors writing in Nynorsk. They were assembled inside Norway’s most prominent and state-of-the-art playhouse. A venue filled with people capable of writing for the theatre. Everything was all set for great scripts to be brought to life on stage. That’s when it struck Jon Fosse that scarcely one of the Nynorsk authors was writing for this theatre that had cost millions to build, and none of them were writing plays. Yet there was the playhouse, ready and waiting. Thousands of square meters. Equipment and technology worth millions. Hundreds of employees. All that was missing was the playwriting. At the time, Jon Fosse had no ambitions whatsoever to write for the theatre, but he was struck by the thought that Nynorsk drama was needed.
That’s long ago now. Fosse has since written thousands of pages, and has become a world famous playwright. And now he’s at Det Norske Teatret, where he will be celebrated with a whole festival in his name – the Fosse Festival! A writer who never actually wanted to be a playwright will now be celebrated for a whole week.

He wanders along to the theatre from Grotten, where he resides – it’s not a long walk. As ever, he is clad in black, and his long grey hair is tied in a pony tail, and he’s contented with life. 25 years have gone by since a Fosse play was first produced on a stage, and now: a whole festival.
“I am grateful and proud. I’m not so keen on a lot of personal attention, but I do appreciate receiving recognition for what I write. After all, it’s what I’ve devoted my life to”.

Fosse was a playwright from the 90s, but has been a professional writer for four decades. He has written prolifically: novels, poetry, plays, children’s books, essays, newspaper articles, and he has translated and reinterpreted. His own works have been translated into more than 50 languages and his name has come up for the Nobel Prize in Literature. This autumn is something quite special for Jon Fosse. Aside from the Fosse Festival, he will be launching his first title in the Septologien (Septology) series of novels in Norway and internationally at the Frankfurt Book Fair. And he’s just shy of his 60th birthday!
“It’s no cause for celebration. When I turned 40, I reckoned it was high time. So much had happened. When I hit 50, it also felt fine”.

“Why don’t you like turning 60?”
“I don’t know. In old days, people were old at 60. But that’s all changed, right? What used to be 70 is now 80, and a 60-year-old may not actually be an old man. I don’t actually mind growing old. But some of our close friends have struggled with serious health problems. Witnessing that has been so awful. But it’s good to be settled, to have lived a long life and done a lot. I’ve never had it so good as now”.

“You are 60 and have six children. The youngest is a baby!”
“Yes. That was the best thing that could have happened to me. Having a tiny baby now is a different experience for me than in the past. I am present in a different way. But obviously, it’s better to have a young father. That said, there are fathers far older than I am. I was bemoaning my fatherhood to a Swedish actor. He certainly took me to task. He was 75 and in the same situation. He was like, ‘who did I think I was’?”

“So, more kids in 15 years’ time, then?”
“Life’s for the living, and what will be, will be”, says Fosse, laughing.
“No matter what spin we put on it, growing older means being closer to death”.
“I’ve never been afraid of death. Some people are, some aren’t”.

“You are able to calmly contemplate death?”
“Yes, although my new fatherhood complicates it. It’s a drawback to fatherhood at a high age, but my attitude is to let there be life, let children be born. Live and let live. I don’t have a fear of death, but there’s a lot of pain in life. And I have a lot of sorrows. As Ibsen put it: ‘I got the gift of sorrow, and I was a bard.’ Pain, sorrow, melancholy and depression are a gift too. You can make the best of them”.

Jon Fosse’s story is strange, and perhaps particularly so the story of Fosse the playwright. The dramatist who would later be hailed as a new Ibsen, barely saw any plays as a child. The trip from outlying Strandebarm to the city of Bergen to see a play was not doable. Back in those days, it was a pretty long journey. In his later youth, he saw some productions that made an impression on him. These included Nattvarden (The Communion) by Lars Norén at the National Theatre, some time in the mid-80s. It was a dark and miserable evening in autumn, but the theatrical experience was intense, almost magical. Fosse described it as follows: “I had seen bad theatre before then, and later too, but once you’ve seen good theatre, it makes up for all the bad stuff you have to suffer.”
Certainly, in his younger years, Fosse had some good experiences of theatre, but he wasn’t that into it. He felt it tended to be more ‘melodrama’ than dramatic art. After having attended a playwriting course, Fosse was convinced that he did right to stay clear of the world of theatre. But then he went on to become a playwright regardless, almost in spite of himself. Director Kai Johnsen tried on numerous occasions to persuade Fosse to write plays. He had read Fosse’s early novels and was convinced that Fosse was a playwright, but Fosse declined time and time again. However, by 1993, at least a decade after his debut novel, he had written his first play. He needed the money! He was broke, and writing lines for the first time; the start of Nokon kjem til å kome (Someone is Going to Come) and it had proved oddly easy. Fosse described his first attempt at playwriting as “the greatest revelation in my life as a writer”.
“In my writing, it’s not what the characters say that speaks out loud. It’s what goes unsaid. It’s a language behind the language that is scripted, and it is actually the underlying language that speaks volumes. When I started playwriting, it was far easier to get the unspoken to be communicated, far easier than in the prose and poetry that I had been writing until then. In playwriting, I can make use of broken sentences and short and long pauses to forefront the underlying language, as it were”.

What is the difference between writing plays and your other writings?
“You can’t tell lies as a playwright. You can’t actually do so in any good fiction; fiction-writing is not the same as lying. Great fiction is pure truth. But in practice: you can make poetry as difficult as you like, or you can make constructs in novels. You can lie – but then won’t write well – in infinitely many respects. You can’t do that in a script for the stage. A good play is completely transparent. In great stage productions, there’s a levitation. Bringing out those levitating moments is what I aim for in my writing. And which have to be there for theatre to be any good. You can’t control it. It’s going to come or not, both in prose and on the stage. But every now and then these magical moments happen on the stage, and they are what make it all worthwhile. Drama can be pretty tedious and a slog for everyone, both in the auditorium and on the stage. But every now and then it happens. “An angel passes through the stage”, as the Hungarians say. This is a nice metaphor for what happens in those moments, when you intuit far more than you actually comprehend without being able to put it into words. Of course, if you try to put it into words, it vanishes”.

A Fosse play was staged for the first time here in Norway on Den Nationale Scene in Bergen in 1994. Nokon kjem til å kome (Someone is Going to Come) premiered at Det Norske Teatret in 1996. The first play was staged abroad in 1997 with the excellent efforts of the Swedish theatre agent Berit Gullberg. His major international breakthrough came two years later. By 1999, Fosse was a well-established playwright in Norway and had become a name in many countries. He was a success. On 28 September 1999, Nokon kjem til å kome (Someone is Going to Come) premiered in Nanterre on the outskirts of Paris. The director was the world-renowned legend Claude Régy. This production paved the way for Fosse’s main breakthrough in Europe. The production was distinctive and surprising, and Jon Fosse awoke in a hotel room in Paris the day after the first night. It was his 40th birthday, and he was fully aware that the production was going to be a door opener for him as a playwright.
“There were translations and productions and there was no end to them. I don’t know how many world premieres there were year on year. One year, I was away for half the year for the premieres. After a while it mounted up. Come autumn, I’d be on tour. And things didn’t settle down until the summer holidays”, Fosse recounts.

When Fosse turned 50, he was tiring. He had been writing plays like crazy for years. One play had led to another. In a single summer he was able to finish two plays. Around the time of his 50th birthday, he announced that the dramatic craze was now waning. The man who had chosen to write to be alone and withdraw had become a centre of attention. He could live it up, and booze away all year round, but Fosse had had enough. The man who disliked having to perform resolved to quit doing so. He didn’t want to tour, or write plays either. For a while at least. Twenty-eight full-length plays. Eight playlets. It was enough.
“After I had written the play Eg er vinden (I am the Wind), I switched straight to writing prose. I wrote Andvake (Sleepless), the start of Trilogien (Trilogy). This holds the transition from plays to prose. After Eg er vinden, I had to write the play Desse auga (These Eyes). It was a commissioned work I had agreed to. It was hard-going”.

“So you had quit as a playwright, then?”
“Yes, my heart wasn’t in it; it was overdue. If you’ve been a playwright for many years, you can write a play. In my writing, one play resembles the next. Which is a good thing! In distinctive authorships, one work overlaps with others. In my case, you could argue that some plays are different acts of the same play. Namnet (The Name) might be the first act, Natta syng sine songar (Nightsongs) the second act; Vinter (Winter) the first act, Nokon kjem til å kome (Someone is Going to Come) the second act, for example”.

It is no secret that there was time when Jon Fosse drank too much, far too much. But never when he was writing, when he needed to be stone-cold sober. For many years, alcohol was useful for a writer who had anxiety issues with virtually everything except writing, but eventually the alcohol took control. He was never drunk, but had to drink to be normal, as he puts it. Fosse was drinking around the clock for a couple of months and then collapsed. That was in spring 2012. He made the decision there and then to quit drinking.
“I had severe delirium and alcohol poisoning. I’ve read that 30 percent die if they go untreated. 15 percent die even with treatment”.

“2012 was a turning point. You quit drinking in March and converted to Catholicism that summer”.
“Yes, that was a turning point. I took charge and turned things around”.
Fosse stopped going to bars, virtually gave up attending productions of his own plays, stopped doing readings and stage appearances. He opted into a different, less sociable life.
“There’s the question of what kind of alcoholism I had. I drank way too much, but it wasn’t hard to abstain from drinking once I had recovered. I don’t go to the pub nowadays. I go to the coffee bars in town. Alcohol is a good thing for many people, and only a serious problem for a relatively small minority. After seven years of sobriety, I can now enjoy a glass of wine or two now and then. But obviously there won’t be any more all-night benders for me. That’s behind me”.

“That time, around 2012, is a before and after divide?”

“Yes, many things coincided. I also met Anna, and we got married. I had my first daughter, Erli. And that was when I was granted use of the royal residence, Grotten. I used to live there half the year, and now I live there all the time”.

Fosse, from Western Norway, was granted the use of the royal residence Grotten in the capital in 2011. How was that going to work out, his western countrymen wondered. Would the literary stream dry up without the rains and mountain and fjord views? Fosse was far from convinced when the offer came to take up residence, but eventually came to feel that it was a good thing given what he represents: the Nynorsk language.
“So much has happened over the last decade. So much that I had to take a break from writing. I face things in life, and I face things in my writing. For me, the things I face when writing are at least as powerful, or even more so, than what I face in life. Writing is a waking trance; putting yourself in a controlled dream state where you listen your way in, as it were. That was why I didn’t want to write in that crazy period after I quit drinking and converted. First I needed to reclaim my usual way of coping”.

“You had anxiety about writing at that time?”
“No, but I was loathe to write. I didn’t feel like letting myself go. And, after all, writing is to expose yourself to the unknown. Things were disconcerting enough”.

Fosse had done with playwriting and was reverting to prose, returning to his starting point. And Andvake (Sleepless), Olavs draumar (Olav’s Dreams) and Kveldsvævd (Weariness) were for Trilogien (Trilogy), a work for which Jon Fosse received the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2015. He was happy, obliging and grateful at the award night in Reykjavik, but when Erna Solberg congratulated him and hinted that it was also a prize for Bergen, all the obligingness vanished. No, Fosse would have no talk of that. The prize was for Western Norway and the Nynorsk language, not Bergen, where moderate Bokmål and Bokmål predominate. Fosse gave Solberg a verbal clout and rushed back to his hotel.
But the Nordic Council Literature Prize had done him good. And in his acceptance speech, Fosse said that the prize had come at a good juncture because as far as Fosse’s eyes could see, he would be writing prose. Fosse had a few years where he avoided writing, but by summer 2015 he had resolved to force himself to get started again. He was helped on his way by a heat wave. In the summer of 2015, Fosse was invited to Château de Brangues in France, once the residence of French poet and dramatist Paul Claudel. Fosse had been invited by Claudel’s descendants, one of his translators having married into the Claudel family. He had a plan to launch into prose writing, and the château was a setting away from the daily grind.

“There was a heat wave while I was there. It was so hot when we went outside it was like being hit by a wall of heat. I don’t cope so well with heat. Fortunately, I had a room on a cool side of the Château. In the evenings, I ventured outside. By day, I was writing the opening to Septologien. I just started with my Mac, on my stomach in bed. Writing comes easily to me. It comes to me when I sit down to write. I’ve never had writer’s block”.
He had a beginning, but no plans to write a novel, and yet he wrote and kept writing. He wanted to write almost the opposite of drama, what he calls “slow prose”, prose which takes time, is a bit fiddly, and doesn’t rush from one thing to the next. He felt compelled towards a slow flow. As he wrote, the text fell naturally into seven parts: hence the title ‘Septology’.
“For many years I had focused intently on plays. My method of writing drama is all about setting constraints in order to achieve concentration and intensity. A dramatic work doesn’t necessarily call for much external drama as such, but for a powerful internal tension, an intense charge. Slow prose is the negation of fast-paced drama. Prose takes far longer than a play and requires more calm in myself and in daily life”.

“And it’s about the sea, death and love?”
“Yes, all over again”, says Fosse, laughing.
“The whole of Septologien (Septology) is perhaps a moment, a condensed now, a moment of death. They say that when people die they see the whole of their life rewound. Septologien could perhaps be viewed as that kind of moment. It was incredibly important to me not to die before this work was completed. That may sound odd, but I was afraid of not making it. I mean, we all have to go, and I was worried that my health and energy wouldn’t last out. After all I’ve been through. In any case, I’ve always had that. I recall when I wrote my first books, having thoughts that I mustn’t die before I had finished writing them”.

“But what makes you think that way?”
“Perhaps because it feels so important to say what has to be said. That it’s my duty to get it said. It’s about form, but also about having something to get across, something that can’t be said in any other way than in literary expression with its attributes of form and content. Good fiction is as unique as any face. Each new work is a new face, as it were”.

During the Fosse Festival, Fosse won’t be putting in much of an appearance at Det Norske Teatret. He may well be in absentia for the entire festival. It will be too much for him, but he will be catching rehearsals, meeting people and watching from his residence inside the palatial grounds of Slottsparken. And although Fosse declared his playwriting craze to be over and done with, he has actually – believe it or not – written another play. It is entitled Sterk vind (Strong Wind). The play is due to be staged at Det Norske Teatret in 2020 or 2021.
“Writing it was like child’s play! And it was such a thrill to be writing a play again after my long break, and to succeed with it. It is a completely different thing to bring form to a dramatic work than to the slow prose. I usually only spend a few weeks or months on a play. It’s written more in a single sweeping process. A bit like a poem. Typically, it all comes together after just a single edit”.

“Will you be writing more for the stage in future?”
“I’d imagine there’ll be more plays. As a matter of fact, I’m already making progress on yet another play. But I regard writing as a gift, and there’s no knowing if I’m to be given more gifts. That said, I won’t be writing plays at the same rate as I did in the past”.

“How about taking retirement at some stage?”
“No, that’s probably not going to happen. Some authors stop writing, others write for as long as they can. I have to have a project; without one I get on edge and discontent”.

“Many people of your age have a nostalgic longing for the place they grew up. Are you there yet?”
“My father will be 90 this autumn. I think I took for granted that my parents are there. Which is crazy, obviously! I don’t long for the place I hail from. I don’t feel attached to Strandebarm; on the contrary. I am attached to what Ingvar Moe referred to as the “West in me”. But that’s a positive thing for me, not a bother for me, in the sense that Ingvar meant”.

“How come you are not attached to Strandebarm?”
“It’s something in me personally. I got along well enough there, but was a difficult case for both myself and others. Mostly for myself perhaps”.

“But the fjord, mountain, rain and water?”
“The main character in Septologien (Septology) sits gazing at the waves. I gaze at my inner waves at Slottsparken”.

“But you coped?”
“Absolutely. I’ve always been adaptable. I don’t need to live anywhere in particular. I’ve been on the move since I was 30 because of the theatre. I’ve had many different abodes”.
“Plus, you have your cabin at Dingja, where you have an ocean view”.
“Yes, it’s good to be able to stay here. The light there is amazingly mild and blue. And to explore the lake. And the hills and heather. I don’t know why, but that does me good”.

Text: Cecilie Seiness.

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Jon Fosse Facts

Jon Fosse (1959-) hails from Strandebarm in Hardanger, Western Norway. He currently resides in the national honorary residence of Grotten in Oslo, but also spends time in Hainburg, Austria and Frekhaug in Western Norway.

Fosse gained an MA philology equivalent from the University of Bergen in 1987, specialising in general literary studies. His debut as a writer came in 1983 with the novel Raudt, svart (Red, black). Since then, he has published novels, poetry, children’s books and essays, but has gained particular renown as a playwright.

His writings have been translated into more than 50 languages, and his plays have been staged thousands of times worldwide.

Fosse also works a translator and has scripted a number of versions of plays by other authors.

Jon Fosse has received a number of awards in Norway and internationally. In 2015, he was awarded the Nordic Council Literature Prize for his series of novels entitled Trilogien (Trilogy).

In recent years, the name Jon Fosse has increasingly come up in the context of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In autumn 2019, Jon Fosse will be launching the first book in a three-volume prose work entitled Septologien (Septology): Det andre namnet (The Other Name).

Septologien has already been sold to a number of countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Spain and Hungary.